issue 208 - June 1990
The hope of Lot 321
Cecilia is trying to create a home for herself and her children - the only
way a poor, single woman can in Costa Rica. She told her story to
Canadian journalists Judy Blankenship and Andrew Wilson.
As she stepped off the bus at 7am that morning, a blanket tucked under her arm and a bag slung over her shoulder, Cecilia could see a few people already starting to put up makeshift shacks and tents.
She had learned a few days earlier that this invasion' was about to occur on a piece of government-owned land just outside the Costa Rican capital, San Jose. Anyone without a home could take pars, the organizers said over a loudspeaker as they drove their van around town.
After 20 years of cleaning the houses of others and living in either cramped servants' quarters or tiny rented rooms, this was Cecilia's only chance of ever having a home of her own. At last she would be able to have her two children, currently living with her sister in Northern Province, come and live with her.
So here she was, helping to create a new settlement. 'Find a place and sit tight,' a voice rasped through a megaphone. 'You will be called by name and given a number which will give you the right to a lot. If you're not here when your name is called you lose your place.'
Cecilia obeyed - and stayed rooted to the spot for the next five days. She slept rough on a piece of cardboard, leaving the plot only briefly once a day or so to get something to eat from a nearby store. During the course of the week, 500 more people arrived, having left rented rooms, squatters' shacks or the streets. All were hoping to be given that magic piece of paper with a number - their claim to a small parcel of land.
Then, on Monday, Cecilia's name was called: Lot 321 was ascribed to her and marked Out. With that she felt confident enough to take the bus back to her rented room, gathered her belongings and began to collect bits of wood and zinc to build a temporary shack.
Cecilia is one of the tens of thousands of Costa Ricans who took cautious hope from the promise of Oscar Arias, elected president in January 1986, that during his administration some 80,000 new houses would be built to ease the country's housing crisis.
Today she is still living in her temporary shack, waiting for the Government to keep its promise. Via a tangle of exposed wires she gets enough electricity to dimly light one bulb. The system is far from safe - faulty wiring has already caused one fire. She has to fetch water from a tank at the bottom of the hill. To add to her difficulties she has, since moving into the shack, given birth to a third child.
But recently Cecilia's hopes of getting a proper house were raised when she was told to stay at home and await the visit of a government engineer. He came - and informed her that due to an error in the measurement of her plot she would have to demolish her shack and move it ten yards before construction of the proper house could begin.
Now this is no easy task for a woman in Cecilia's position to accomplish. She has no family living nearby to call upon for help. And a land invasion does not always ensure long-term popular co-operation within the settlement. People are brought together - but only by a common interest in having a home of their own. They do not necessarily develop into a community.
The people who led this invasion vanished within a month of its happening. Motivated by political interests, they had never intended to live there themselves anyway. They left in place a number of committees - health, security, utilities - through which the inhabitants were supposed to meet their collective needs and co-ordinate the building of their houses. But, bereft of organizational support, the committees melted away and only 40 of the 300 houses planned have been completed.
Cecilia managed to move her shack the required ten yards and is now waiting for slabs of concrete building material to arrive. If and when they do, she will have to dream up some way of getting them to her lot - and erecting them. If she cannot get neighbours to help she may have to find money to hire labourers. Cecilia's situation reveals the gulf that exists between the noble intentions of policy-makers and the social complexities that bedevil inadequately financed programmes.
But Cecilia's dream of a house is the only dream she has - and so she clings to it, believing that somehow or other it must work out.
Judy Blankenship and Andrew Wilson live and work in Costa Rica.
Cartoon by Martyn Turner